No. 13 Ohio State (18-4, 9-0 Big Ten) is exactly halfway through its conference schedule with nine games won and nine games remaining. It narrowly edged out Nebraska Monday, 64-59, in its closest conference game of the season.
Here are some notes from the postgame press conference.
Keita Bates-Diop finding production despite tighter defensive coverage
The cat is out of the bag: redshirt junior Keita Bates-Diop is one of the best players in college basketball. The 6-foot-7 forward averages 19.7 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from the 3.
Earlier in the year, teams played man-to-man against Bates-Diop. It allowed him to easily drive and to shoot high-percentage shots inside or catch wide-open passes from beyond the arc and knock home 3s. But teams have started to press more often in their coverage of him, double-teaming him to prevent him from having those open looks. His current four-game stretch has seen him average his lowest point rate (16.8) since he averaged 15 points per game from Nov. 19-26.
The added defensive pressure has made it more challenging for Bates-Diop to find open lanes to drive to the basket. But against Nebraska, he said he was able to stay moving and would eventually find open space without the ball before catching a pass and making a play.
“So I started slipping screens and just moving around a little bit more, cutting a little bit more off the ball and all my teammates found me,” Bates-Diop said Monday. “It was mostly just layups to the basket.”
He had been off to a slow start, making only 2-of-5 shots from the field and struggling to find open shooting chances given the coverage. Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said he typically does not have to say much to Bates-Diop when he goes into a bit of a lull and that it is always just a matter of time until his star forward starts putting up points.
“I just told him I’d like for you to score a lot more and go get 14 really quickly here,” Holtmann joked. “He’s getting a lot of attention. He missed some open shots, but he made some huge plays for us. And I thought our guys did a nice job finding him in the post late too.”
Four games in eight days
When the Buckeyes went to the locker room after the game Monday night, they finally had a chance to really catch their breath. They had just wrapped up their fourth game in eight days with the first three coming on the road.
“I definitely am a little fatigued,” senior forward Jae’Sean Tate said. “I mean you know that’s just the cards we were dealt. Especially this season with the tournament being moved up, it’s a little tougher. But I think as a team, we’re doing a great job. The coaches are focusing more on film and recovery.”
Holtmann said the team did not discuss any change in approach to the four-game stretch, but that the players have worked additionally with strength and conditioning coach Quadrian Banks to avoid getting too worn down.
He also said he wanted three of his starters — junior guard C.J. Jackson, Bates-Diop and Tate, who played 37, 37 and 33 minutes, respectively — to get more rest given how much they had played during that stretch. However, given how close Monday’s matchup wound up being, he was unable to rest his starters as much as he would have liked.
“We’re going to continue to trust and use our bench,” Holtmann said. “We played seven guys over 20 minutes, which is kind of normal. But we need to continue obviously for Thursday. We need to probably utilize our bench even more if we can.”
Andre Wesson and Andrew Dakich providing much-needed relief
Part of those bench players who have helped to provide key relief for starters have been sophomore forward Andre Wesson and redshirt senior guard Andrew Dakich.
Wesson, who lost time over the summer due to an undisclosed injury, has worked his way back and has taken the role of the top bench forward. Over the past five games, he has averaged 21.8 minutes per game.
Though he has only averaged 2.8 points per game over that stretch, the players and coaches have raved about his passing and defense being valuable coming off the bench.
“Sometimes you guys may not see things that don’t show up on stat sheets, but he’s being a great defender,” Tate said. “He’s getting his hands on deflections, he’s boxing out his man, making sure they don’t get the ball, but also keeping balls alive.”
Like Wesson, Dakich has not been the most productive scoring guard, averaging just 3.8 points per game over his past five games — with an average of 22.4 minutes per game. Unlike Wesson, he lacks the size to guard taller forwards attempting jump shots. He also lacks game-changing speed, but Holtmann said the 6-foot guard makes up for it with his awareness.
“What he lacks in athleticism — and let’s be honest, he lacks athleticism — he makes up for it so much in his IQ and his ability to connect his teammates,” Holtmann said. “I did not realize he’d be this solid for us defensively. They tried to ice him tonight and people shot over at times, but he’s hard to get around.”
Ohio State will try to extend its unbeaten streak in the Big Ten to 10 games when it hosts Penn State at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Schottenstein Center.